The Second Life Johnny Eck

A decade after his death, "The Most Remarkable Man Alive!" may be reborn on film. It's the latest chapter in a life epitomized by veneration and exploitation.

Cover Story

April 08, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro

Six years ago, when he heard the news that Robert Alexander Eckhardt was dead, and that effects belonging to him and his late twin, John, had been sold to a Fells Point antiques dealer, Jeffrey Pratt Gordon hit the streets.

He combed every shop in the waterfront neighborhood for items he'd recognize as evidence of the Eckhardts' lives: hand-carved Punch and Judy puppets, pastoral painted screens, carnival pitchbooks, toy circus animals. Any number of artifacts might lead to the eclectic estate of brothers whose whimsical genius had sustained them for most of their lives while enchanting multitudes.

The Eckhardts had grown up nearby in East Baltimore, where residents had a knack for turning modest opportunities into profitable ventures. Born to this work ethic, the two men had endlessly reinvented themselves, earning a small but radiant place in American pop cultural history. Until their last, sad years, the pair had not only defied expectations for John, born with a devastating disability, but turned that disability to advantage during a prime spent in picaresque adventure.

For such a small man, John "Johnny Eck" Eckhardt looms large in the dreams of many lured to the strange-but-true side of life. Once billed as "The Most Remarkable Man Alive!", he'd had an avid following among those familiar with his sideshow career and role in the cult film "Freaks." Johnny's screen paintings have traveled widely in folk art exhibitions and reside, along with the twins' homemade miniature carnival, in private collections coast to coast. He has been embraced by pro-life advocates and immortalized by visionary cartoonist R. Crumb. His name is a staple of sideshow and art histories and Web sites.

In life and death, the Eckhardts have attracted predators and protectors, freak fanatics and friends, dabblers and serious students. A select few are devoted to preserving the brothers' memory. Gordon, a property master on the set of "Homicide" and feature films around the country, is one of a tiny subset intent on sharing that memory with an audience beyond the fringe.

He'd never met John or Robert. But if he could own what the Eckhardts' had owned, Gordon felt, he could touch their lives, commune with their spirits and celebrate their gifts with the world at large. He would bring to his mission the same, all-or-nothing intensity he'd brought to other objects of his fascination, such as the potatoes he obsessively photographed in college or the outsider artist for whom he'd once provided a refuge.

Gordon, 33, couldn't anticipate that in his self-appointed role as the Eckhardts' posthumous caretaker, he would one day confront the film industry in a struggle to tell the truth about their lives. Nor did Gordon realize that his search would uncover a quirky claque of Eckhardt admirers who tirelessly analyze the dead men's words, relive their deeds and scramble to benefit in some way from Hollywood's fleeting attention to the brothers.

Before stumbling upon this funhouse world, Gordon's quest for the Eckhardts' belongings led him to one last storefront, where he spied a small, papier-mache skull. It seemed like a clue.

The shop was called, amazingly enough, Johnny's Corner, and it was there Gordon discovered a large steamer trunk bearing the name Robert Alexander. On a hunch, Gordon bought the trunk and its contents. Inside, he found a wealth of letters, photos and souvenirs probably untouched by anyone other than the Eckhardt brothers. The little skull, it turned out, had been theirs, too.

For Gordon, the believe-it-or-not afterlife of Johnny Eck and his brother Robert had begun.

The Eckhardt twins were born on Aug. 27, 1911. The tale, as related by Johnny, is a creation myth, blue-collar Baltimore style.

"On a hot summer night, some years ago during a violent thunderstorm, in the second-floor bedroom of a red-brick rowhouse there would occur an event that would shock the neighborhood," Johnny recounted with typical flourish in an unpublished biography.

Twenty minutes after Robert was born, "A second baby began to emerge; with more than half of it seemingly missing. This baby [had] almost nothing below his rib cage -- a monster? It weighed two pounds."

Although the second infant's body appeared to end at the waist, he was surprisingly healthy. His family embraced him and christened him John. "It was as if God himself had chosen this family to be born in," Johnny said.

The twins could read and write by age 4, and showed an aptitude for art. Johnny also proved an irrepressible entertainer, whose prowess and charisma led to an early sideshow career as "Johnny Eck the Half Boy -- the World's Greatest Living Curiosity." Spotted by talent scouts, Eck earned a starring role in the 1932 movie "Freaks." In carnival and circus midways, "I was a performer, walked a tight rope, worked on trapeze, juggled -- I did everything," he said.

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